The forbidden language now taught at Stanford

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Afan Oromo, a native language of Ethiopia, is being taught at Stanford for the first time this fall as part of the Stanford Language Center’s African and Middle Eastern Languages ​​(AMELANG) program.

Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie banned Afan Oromo from being spoken, taught or used administratively in the country in order to subjugate the Oromo people and culture in 1941. After the ban was lifted in 1991, a push to revitalizing the language began in and beyond Oromia and Ethiopia, led by ethnic and diaspora Oromians, as well as non-Oromians. This push has now reached the Stanford campus.

Among Stanford’s large East African student population, Saron Samuel ’25 and Eban Ebssa ’25 told the Daily they seek to connect more to their heritage and filed a special winter language request. last to have Afan Oromo added as a class. Although their request was initially denied, they were told that if they had at least one more interested student, the class could get funding. The Special Languages ​​Petition allows students to work with the university to add courses in lesser taught languages.

Samuel took action: “I submitted the form in several group chats, reached out to people I knew would be interested in taking the course, and posted on social media,” she said.

When the two had three more students committed to the class, the AMELANG program accelerated funding and hired a new lecturer, teacher Afan Oromo Belay Biratu, during the summer.

The University was able to add the course through a generous contribution from the Center for African Studies and in response to student requests, according to Stanford AMELANG program coordinator Khalil Barhoum. Afan Oromo is offered in a three-course sequence this year and will be the third Ethiopian language to be taught at Stanford, along with Amharic and Tigrinya.

Biratu told The Daily that he first learned the language in secret in the 1980s. He and other interested learners would meet in secret to explore the language. Although he was eventually caught teaching it to younger students and harshly punished for his actions, Biratu said he thinks it was worth it because now he can continue. to teach the language and the culture to those who seek it.

“In general, my vision of teaching Afan Oromo is to do justice to the culture. It is not against anyone or any group. It is to do justice to people who use this language as their mother tongue. “, he said. “It is my passion and my sincere belief that language education does justice to human culture.”

Biratu began this term’s course with an introduction to sounds in Afan Oromo. Unlike English, Afan Oromo is a phonetic language and pronunciation is an integral part of fluency, he said. It goes on to teach vocabulary, grammar and other fundamental blocks of language learning.

Biratu and his students consider themselves “pioneers paving the way at Stanford” for greater appreciation and use of Afan Oromo.

Biratu and his students (Photo: Andrew Gerges/The Stanford Daily)

Hawi Ibrahim ’24 said she has been asking the language department to add Oromo since her freshman year, but the petition has never been successful so far. Like Samuel and other students, she sought to learn the language to connect with her heritage and her family.

“My grandmother only speaks Oromo, and not knowing the language in many ways blocked me from connecting with her,” she said.

Ibrahim said she was never able to learn the language due to lack of resources. She recalled a time when her Bay Area community tried to mount an effort to offer a course in the language, but there were no teachers or materials available.

“That’s why when I came to Stanford, I knew it was one of my only chances to finally learn,” Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim said that due to the language being banned for half a century, there is a palpable sense of excitement and pride, as well as triumph, in the classroom. “Every time I walk into class, there is real excitement in the air to do things right and make our communities proud,” she said. “My parents never had the chance to learn Oromo in school, so every time I walk into class, I’m so grateful for the opportunity given to me, which many don’t have. couldn’t afford it.”

“Every time I learn something new, I call my family and share it with them,” she added. “I want to show them that young people are not giving up on their culture, we are fighting for it.

Moreover, explained Samuel, teaching the language could be a method of dissipating ethnic tensions and increasing mutual understanding. “I am now learning Oromo and Amharic, and hopefully Tigrinya in the future,” she said.

Today, the language is widely recognized as the most spoken language in Ethiopia and the third most spoken language in Africa, and it is the lingua franca of the Oromo region. Because the ban ended only three decades ago, Ethiopian universities and institutions are now struggling to standardize and teach the language. Biratu hopes Stanford will join the effort.

Feyera Hirpa, an Oromian native and current president of the Northern California Oromo community, said he was excited about the addition of the new class to Stanford.

“The community is so proud because Afan Oromo is now taught at Stanford, one of the best universities in the world,” Hirpa said. “I hope, and I share that hope with many in the community, that this is the start of something big.”

Biratu shared similar sentiments: “When this kind of thing happens, the Ethiopian community is so happy, it’s a dream come true,” he said. “We are so happy for Stanford.”

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